Use the word socialism over the past decade and you’ll likely conjure up images of political ads claiming control of the United States by the country’s “coastal elites.”
But from the turn of the 20th century to the end of World War I, socialism was commonplace in much of the country, including finding a substantial support system among Oklahomans.
“Proportionally it (Oklahoma) was the largest socialist party given the state’s small population. It had more dues-paying members than New York State at its height,” said Stephen Norwood, a history professor at the University of Oklahoma. “At its peak, the Oklahoma Socialist Party could garner almost a third of the vote.”
The rise of socialism in Oklahoma
Cities on the East Coast and the Midwest led much of the early socialist movements where the focus was on workers in industrialized areas. However, movement leaders like Oscar Ameringer soon saw an opportunity among those living in rural parts of the country as well.
“When Ameringer came to Oklahoma in 1907, he realized from looking around that you couldn’t build a socialist movement on the traditional socialist base,” Norwood said. “There wasn’t a lot of industry in Oklahoma.”
Ameringer, originally from Germany, first found his calling by organizing with labor movements in Ohio and Louisiana before moving to Oklahoma to work in the Socialist Party. Instead of focusing on the traditional views conveyed by Marx’s writings and the belief that industrial workers would lead the movement, what Ameringer discovered in Oklahoma was an impoverished state made up largely of agricultural workers. . Many of these workers were sharecroppers who did not own the land they worked on.
Norwood said that after the Land Run, much of the state land ended up in the hands of coal companies, oil companies, railroad companies and other wealthy landowners, leaving the small farmers no choice but to rent to them.
“It meant that if you found yourself in this situation, you had no real hope for the future. You will live in poverty generation after generation like sharecroppers in the South,” he said. “Socialists have given these people some hope.”
An early Ameringer meeting was held in Harrah, Norwood said, as he began traveling across the state to share the socialist platform and message. Norwood said Ameringer describes this meeting in his autobiography.
“He noticed that the man who greeted him and was going to introduce him to the public was really soaked through, and he asked him why,” Norwood said. “There had been a torrential downpour, the kind we often have in Oklahoma, and the bridges had washed out but he wasn’t going to miss the chance to introduce Oscar Ameringer so he crossed the river at the swimming.
Ameringer was impressed by the dedication of the farmers who lived on little more than a subsistence level. However, in addition to changing their message and moving away from some of the strongest Marxist ideals, socialists also had to address religion for the rural poor in Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas, rather than denouncing it like other socialists around the world. country did.
“They used religious imagery,” Norwood said. “People come from all over in their wagons, or on horseback or on foot and they are used to listening to ministers preach, so socialist orders would adopt the same kind of style – almost fire and brimstone, apocalyptic style – to present the socialist message”.
Goals of the Oklahoma Socialists
Norwood said that unlike the National Socialist Party, Oklahoma socialists did not uphold the traditional ideal of public resources, often seen as being on the left of the party or the part of socialism known as red because of its affiliation with Marxist ideals.
“Now in Oklahoma, that won’t work. If you make it your message, you won’t get anywhere; you have to be more flexible,” he said. “What they were proposing was to take the big landholdings and divide them into small farms which would be private farms owned by individuals.”
Candidates representing the Oklahoma Socialist Party have often polled nearly a third of the state’s votes in elections. Ameringer himself would get about 23% of the vote in the 1911 race for mayor of Oklahoma City.
In the 1914 gubernatorial elections, Fred W. Holt won 41% and 35% of the vote, respectively, in Marshall and Roger Mills counties, where socialism was strongest, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society.
Socialism falls out of favor
In 1917, at the height of World War I, a group of Oklahoma sharecroppers staged a revolt along the banks of the South Canadian River. This uprising, known as the Green Corn Rebellion, was a protest against the country’s conscription or forced conscription policy.
According to the Oklahoma Historical Society, “the men planned to march to Washington and end the war, surviving along the way by eating grilled beef and roasted green corn, the latter giving the rebellion its name.”
“He didn’t get very far, and he was put down – the detachments were quickly recruited – and went after these gunmen and put down the uprising,” Norwood said. “But the green corn rebels seized banks and county offices.”
Norwood said the uprising, though unsuccessful, pointed to broader pacifist anti-war sentiments that the rebels were playing on. While the Socialist Party and Ameringer discouraged the uprising and it was not an official act sponsored by the Socialists, it led to the party’s first wave of decline.
“It was after about 1920 that it declined very rapidly,” Norwood said. “The peak is really in the 1910s. Historically, the party itself is really just a shell after 1932.”
There was a brief resurgence with the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Democrat who united many who had supported socialism, including small farmers, labor unions, and African Americans.
The effects of socialism on other movements
Like the rest of the country, Oklahoma saw the development of labor unions with the growth of the socialist movement. Most Oklahoma unions got their start with socialist leaders like Ameringer.
The Oklahoma Renters’ Union and the Twin-Territorial Federation of Labor, later the Oklahoma Federation of Labor, were among the first established in the state. These unions, like their national counterparts, have led efforts to improve working conditions for workers in a number of industries.
Ameringer and many leaders of the socialist movement across the country were also advocates for African American rights. However, in Oklahoma, this is an area where the party has largely ignored progress, Norwood said. While Ameringer pushed to strike down Oklahoma’s grandfather clause, an amendment to the state constitution that stripped most black residents of the franchise, many other socialists were not concerned with these issues.
“That’s still a problem in this time and for the labor organization in general is that there’s a significant amount of racism among poor white people,” Norwood said.
The development of the Southern Tenant Farmer’s Union during the Great Depression, an interracial union that originated in Arkansas but quickly expanded to include many Oklahoma farmers, was to initiate a change in attitude.
Norwood said racism still existed within the Socialist Party, but the party “went beyond the two main parties in their proposals on civil rights”. As the civil rights movement progressed, more socialist leaders from the African-American community emerged, including Bayerd Rustin, the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington.
“I think the one thing the socialists probably said was that all people are human beings deserving to be treated with dignity, to have a fair chance in life, to have some protection against a sudden impoverishment.”
Norwood says socialism today is a “watered down” form of the earlier movement, embraced by other parties, including those who would now classify themselves as liberal Democrats or leftists.
“Socialism as it is defined now is not quite what it used to be,” Norwood said. “The classic definition of socialism is public ownership of the means of production and distribution. Anyone who calls himself a socialist now doesn’t go that far; it’s more about building a safety net.